Penelope Fitzgerald is Jane Austen's nearest heir, but with a continental, metaphysical touchby AS Byatt / August 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
i knew penelope fitzgerald-never well-for a long time. We taught together at Westminster Tutors in the 1960s, where the ferocious Miss Freeston created an atmosphere of eccentric precision. (She was later to appear in At Freddie’s, observed with judgment and affection.) My first real memory of Penelope was the mixture of irritation and curiosity with which she greeted my assertion that you couldn’t talk about “the protagonists” of a novel. “Why?” said Penelope, sharply. My mother told me, I said. She learned at Cambridge that in Greek tragedy there was one protagonist, and one deuteragonist. Of course, said Penelope. Exactness pleased her. She reminded me from time to time of my mother’s remark. In due course she taught my eldest daughter. She was a splendid teacher. She told me with the same half-irritation that I didn’t seem to know how clever my daughter was. Since I had said nothing about that, and would have felt it wrong to boast, I felt harshly judged. But I nodded meekly. She was mild but formidable.
It was perhaps because I knew her as a teacher that I took as long as I did to see how very good her novels were. She was always modest about them, and their reception. Her unusual annoyance at the critics for not seeing that Human Voices turned on a poem by Heine was a teacherly flash of irritation at their obtuseness. She hoped I would “write something” so that people would understand. But at that stage I myself didn’t understand. I thought she was a good, comic, English domestic novelist, who had read Muriel Spark well. It was only when I read the late, remote novels about other times and places that I came to hear the moral ferocity, the elegance of mind, the bleakness and generosity of her vision. It was not actually good for her reputation to have won the Booker Prize for Offshore, although I now see, as I didn’t then, why it was right that the judges should give it to her. People in England still saw her then as a good biographer-of Burne-Jones, of the eccentric Charlotte Mew-who happened to write novels. Her masterpiece in that line is her composite biography of her father and his brothers, The Knox Brothers. It is a portrait of English intelligence, religion, eccentricity, pig-headedness and wisdom, written with directness and wit. She was, like her family,…